Tuesday, August 06, 2013

`Something to Cling To, Just in Case'

Somewhere I read that Donald Justice was an enthusiastic moviegoer and that his favorite actors were Cary Grant and John Wayne, a pairing I sympathize with (I might choose Alec Guinness and Wayne, or Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart) and that suggests something about the nature of his poetry. In his poems, Justice is at once a nostalgist, a suave habituĂ© of memory and twilight, and deeply suspicious of such impulses. Similar tensions suffuse the work of Justice’s contemporaries Anthony Hecht and Edgar Bowers. Crudely put, Justice is sensitive and tough, elegant and roughhewn. The result is not confused, hypocritical or wishy-washy but emotionally and morally layered, making Justice what Auden called Henry James, “Master of nuance and scruple.” In the third of the three sections of “Variations on a Theme from James” (The Summer Anniversaries, 1960), Justice writes: 

“Such art has nature in her kind
That in the shaping of a hill
She will take care to leave behind
Some few abutments here and there,
Something to cling to, just in case.
A taste more finical and nice
Would comb out kink and curl alike.
But O ye barbers at your trade,
What more beguiles us? Your  coiffures?
Or gold come waterfalling down?” 

As the epigraph to his poem, Justice appends “large, loose, baggy monsters,” from James’ preface to Vol. 7, The Tragic Muse, in the New York Edition of his work: 

“There may in its absence be life, incontestably, as [Thackeray’s] The Newcomes has life, as [Alexandre Dumas’] Les trois mousquetaires, as Tolstoi’s Peace and war, have it; but what do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean? We have heard it maintained, we well remember, that such things are ‘superior to art’; but we understand least of all what that may mean, and we look in vain for the artist, the divine explanatory genius, who will come to our aid and tell us.” 

The demands of art and life forever conflict, and some artists never reconcile them. Pure naturalism and pure aestheticism will never do. Unlike James, I think Tolstoy in War and Peace crafts a novel that is undeniably large but neither loose nor baggy. Elsewhere, Justice writes feelingly of War and Peace, of its well-remembered small moments rendered in unornamented language. In his 1988 essay “The Prose Sublime,” Justice says: 

 “…the reaction to prose as to poetry proves in experience to be much the same, a sort of transport, a frisson, a thrilled recognition, which, `flashing forth at the right moment,’ as Longinus has it, `scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt.’” 

Justice died on this date, Aug. 6, in 2004, at age seventy-eight. Aug. 6 is also my oldest son’s birthday. Today he turns twenty-six and his birth to me is as vivid and strange as his wedding last month to Nadia Chaudhury, my daughter-in-law. For Joshua, here are lines from Justice’s “Men at Forty” (Night Light, 1967): 

“And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father's tie there in secret 

“And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.”

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